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Microsoft’s Upstream Reference Architecture Initiative – 25 members

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Microsoft Upstream Reference Architecture Initiative now has 25 participating companies. We interviewed Microsoft’s head of worldwide oil and gas, Ali Ferling, and other members of the team, about the latest developments.

The Microsoft Upstream Reference Architecture Initiative, to develop a standard IT architecture for the oil and gas industry and encourage people to use it, now has 25 participating companies.

Companies signed up to the initiative as of September 2010 are Accenture, EMC Corp, Energistics, Esri, Honeywell, Idea Integration, IHS Inc, iStore, Infosys Technologies Ltd, ISS Group Pty, Landmark Graphics (Halliburton), Logica, Merrick Systems, NeoFirma, NetApp, OpenSpirit, OSIsoft, Petris, PointCross, Schlumberger Information Solutions (SIS), Siemens Energy, Tata Consultancy Services, VRcontext LLC, WellPoint Systems Inc and Wipro Technologies.

The Microsoft Upstream Reference Architecture Initiative is developing an advisory board of people working at oil and gas companies.

The project aims to define broadly a standard way that oil and gas information technology systems can be stitched together.

It suggests that oil and gas IT systems are built up in 5 layers - (i) databases, (ii) applications for different domains (eg production software, g+g software); (iii) systems to integrate all the applications together; (iv) “orchestration” to manage people’s work using the applications, and (v) presenting the data, so people can work with it.

The architecture standard has a lot more detail than this, describing ways to set up specific processes, for example to monitor production or manage geophysical data. But it does not specify specific products which should be used, or define things so tightly that only specific products will work with it. There is an emphasis on open standards.

If most companies put together their IT systems in the same way, it becomes easier for the industry to gather knowledge about the best way to do it; it also becomes easier to transfer expertise, software applications and other IT products from one company to another.

Microsoft embarked on the project because it was constantly being asked by its customers what they thought was the best way to connect the different software components together, says Paul Nguyen, industry technology strategist – worldwide oil and gas industry, Microsoft. So it designed the architecture to be able to provide a standard answer.

“We are driving a consensus how technology should be used,” says Dr Ali Ferling, managing director, worldwide oil and gas industry, Microsoft.  “It’s about knitting things the easiest and simplest way together.”

Defining things loosely

It is important to understand that the standard architecture aims to define how IT systems should be stitched together fairly loosely – similar to how a recipe gives you steps to make a meal, or a standard architecture for a house might say, have the living rooms downstairs and the bedrooms upstairs.

The architecture does not specify which specific products should be used – and it is not a ploy to secretly force oil and gas companies to use products from certain suppliers.

One of the challenges with the standard architecture is combating the perception that the project is about promoting Microsoft products.

To continue with the house analogy, most houses are built in a standard fashion, with bedrooms upstairs, a hallway by the entrance, a kitchen next to the dining room, a bathroom near the bedroom, a structure so you can go from one bedroom to the bathroom without going through another bedroom. It will have electric and plumbing systems built to certain standard sizes.

Doing things this way makes everything a lot easier – because electrical supplies have standard voltages, people can use the same electrical appliance in different houses. People can feel comfortable living in different houses, and so on. But at no point does any specific supplier gain any advantage.

The standard methods for building houses evolved over time, in different parts of the world – but now, most people around the world live in properties which are broadly similar.

Architectures, exchange standards and models    

There are important differences between an IT architecture standard (which Microsoft is promoting), data exchange standards and data model standards.

Data exchange standards define standard ways data can be exchanged from one system to another, so different systems can be fitted together.

Data model standards describe standard ways of storing data (a bit like file formats).

Obstacles

One obstacle to getting oil and gas IT systems to work well together is the way the industry is set up, with many different vendors, all making solutions to specific problems, working in competition with each other.

The industry is often proud of the competitive environment between suppliers, “It thrives on competitive suppliers and competitive practises,” says Johan Nell, partner lead for Accenture upstream. “The industry is proud that it has the latest suppliers and the latest vendors.”

Oil companies want to maintain the flexibility to have ‘best of breed’ for software at any point in time.

But it also pays a cost, in that there is often very little incentive for suppliers to ensure their software works well with other company’s products.

“We have to move beyond these point solutions,” Mr Nell says. “We’re getting to the point where we need to integrate more of these technologies. Microsoft is making it easier to do.”

It would be ideal to reach a situation where somebody could take a software component from one vendor (eg Halliburton), and replace it with a component from another vendor (eg Schlumberger) and it could work straight away, he says.

Many people in the industry support the broad idea of better integration between IT products. In a recent survey of upstream oil and gas professionals conducted by Microsoft and Accenture, “a third of respondents to the survey said they’d like vendors to collaborate more,” Mr Nell says.

But there are not many people with the specific role of achieving this and many people who want to protect their ability to use software which helps them do their job, which they know how to use.

“Geology and geophysics engineers roll their eyes because they are most interested in solving their own unique challenge,” says Mr Nell.

“But we say, you’ve got to make it easier to solve the whole challenge, to integrate the information and expose it to the whole of your business, and make it easier to visualise data.

It is not unusual for an industry (or even a society) to be stuck with many different components which don’t fit well together and not many people having the incentive or ability to bring it all together. Mr Ferling quotes an expression from his country, Germany. “Germans say, god made all things – and the devil made the things between the things,” he says.

Building on the architecture

There are other aspects which would also benefit from standardisation – including standard terminology, standard translations between terminology in different languages. And if someone would develop such a standard, it could be included as part of this standard architecture.

There are many elements which could be added to the architecture but are not compulsory – for example using cloud services rather than software + databases for the applications, and using social networking tools for the presentation layer.

It has flexibility to be continuously developed for new technology developments or trends – it just provides the main building blocks.



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